Reading Progress:

“I wanted to write about how we might have evolved without white hegemony”: A conversation with Okezie Nwọka

and Jane Link

God of Mercy is Okezie Nwọka’s debut novel. It is set in an Igbo village, Ichulu, and revolves around the life of the brave Ijeọma, a non-verbal girl who can fly. Once far removed from the world, Ichulu is now reckoning with the encroachment of its colonized neighbours. Soon Ijeọma finds herself under the tyranny of a church that has branded her a witch. In this interview, Nwọka meditates on the difficulties of duality and adapting our languages and cultures for the foreign page.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors as a debut novelist?

It’s so important to believe in your writing. I worked with several people and many had different ideas about how the novel should read. It wasn’t until I became stubborn and stuck with those I liked best that there was real momentum gained. So, believe in yourself and in your voice. You will know when the writing is ready.

What compelled you to write God of Mercy?

I wanted to write a novel that spoke to how we might have evolved without the influence of white hegemony. This question stayed with me after reading novels like Things Fall Apart. As a child, I actually finished reading that novel grateful for the white colonizers because they were the ones who saved twins like me from being cast off into the Evil Forest. I couldn’t help but feel grateful. This is how I realised the importance of telling stories in which black people are helping each other survive this world. 

What other books have stayed with you?

Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

God of Mercy is a veritable treasure trove for anyone interested in Igbo culture. Tell us about the research process.

I did much of it in college. I wasn’t looking for information to fit the life of the protagonist Ijeọma specifically but rather researching the communities as a whole. I used my findings to create the customs and traditions seen in the novel, combining online research with oral research by simply speaking to my family.

I’m fascinated by how challenging it is to translate African languages and find European alternatives for words that often contain an entirely different and often opposite way of understanding reality. How does English limit your novel?

This is a really great question. I write using Igbo speech patterns, meaning that while the novel is written in English, the cadence and the rhythm is Igbo. I borrowed this technique from Chinua Achebe who said that he writes his fiction in an anglicized Igbo, making the language familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It’s not an English that belongs to England. It belongs to the Igbo.

What makes duality possible? How is it that two opposite things can coexist in this universe?

God of Mercy is a celebration of those who have resisted colonialism. It is also a condemnation of rigid traditional practices. How do you negotiate dualism?

I’m still figuring that one out. I can say that having internal tension in a novel makes for really great writing. It augments it, adding life to the various themes and subject matter.

You end on a powerful note about the universality of human compassion in the face of religious factionalism. Did you begin with or arrive at that sentiment?

I arrived there. But in some way, I began there as well because I started writing with two questions in mind: what makes duality possible, and how is it that two opposite things can coexist in this universe? The answer I found in writing is mercy. Mercy makes it so that our worst enemies can exist next to us, living just as we are living.

Leave us with the most important thing you learnt in this process.

I think it must be how powerful merciful love is. Every time a character performed an act of merciful love, it changed the overall trajectory and mood of the story for the better. When I first started writing God of Mercy, I didn’t know what I wanted readers to come away with, but when the theme of merciful love made itself manifest I realised I had found a true message to share.

OKEZIE NWỌKA (he/they) was born and raised in Washington, D.C. They are a graduate of Brown University, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a Dean Graduate Research Fellow. They are presently teaching and living in their hometown. God of Mercy is their first novel. Find them on their website and @okezienwoka on Instagram and Twitter.

JANE LINK is the founder of bigblackbooks. She is also a publishing professional holding two master’s in literature from The University of Edinburgh and SOAS. Find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

“I wanted to write about how we might have evolved without white hegemony”: A conversation with Okezie NwọkaGod of Mercy by Okezie Nwoka
Published by Astra on 2 November 2021
Genres: Debut, Folktale
Pages: 312

God of Mercy is set in Ichulu, an Igbo village where the people’s worship of their gods is absolute. Their adherence to tradition has allowed them to evade the influences of colonialism and globalisation. But the village is reckoning with changes, including a war between gods signalled by Ijeọma, a girl who can fly. As tensions grow between Ichulu and its neighbouring colonized villages, Ijeọma is forced into exile. Reckoning with her powers and exposed to the world beyond Ichulu, she is imprisoned by a Christian church under the accusation of being a witch. Suffering through isolation, she comes to understand the truth of merciful love. Reimagining the nature of tradition and cultural heritage and establishing a folklore of the uncolonised, God of Mercy is a novel about wrestling with gods, confronting demons, and understanding one's true purpose.

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